The Literary Review is one of the oldest literary magazines in America, having been founded in 1957 and continually published by Fairleigh Dickinson University. This year is the 60th anniversary of the magazine, and the newest issue is themed Physics, an all-fiction issue featuring new writing from Heather Cleary, JoAnna Novak, Mathias Svalina, and more. TLR print issues always have a theme, and typically include fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. TLR’s website also publishes book reviews (and is always seeking pitches). We talked to Fiction Editor Justin Taylor about the editing process and what steps writers can take to get their work published.
How long have you been editing and what drew you to working for literary magazines?
I’ve been editing/curating in some form for about ten years now. Through an unusual set of circumstances, I edited two anthologies while I was an MFA student, both of which came out the summer I graduated (2007). The Apocalypse Reader was a book of short fictions about the end of the world, published by an indie press. Come Back, Donald Barthelme was a collection of tributes to the great story writer by people who’d known him or been inspired by him; it was published in or as a special section of McSweeney’s #24. These experiences taught me that I had an appetite for curation, and some sense of how to promote; I really loved the way that each book grew a little community around itself, and the way that being the editor allowed you to really push the work, advocate for it, in a way that you probably wouldn’t (because you’d sound like a jerk) when pushing your own writing. I found that editing was a good counterforce in my life to the essential solitariness of being a writer. Soon after, I joined up with my friend Jeremy Schmall who had founded a small poetry-focused annual, The Agriculture Reader, while we were in grad school. I’d contributed to the first two issues and joined up as co-editor starting with #3. AGR put out seven issues total, over about nine years. Around the time that was winding down, in 2015, Minna Proctor asked if I’d be interested in joining her at The Literary Review, serving as her fiction editor (which title I prefer to “prose editor,” though I also handle the nonfiction). I’d long been a fan of TLR, so it was an honor to be asked and an easy thing to say yes to.
How much do you typically edit a story before publication?
Very little. If a story needs more than a line here or there touched up, I’m going to pass on it. I see my role at TLR as primarily curatorial. In the workshop it’s different. There my role is to help writers develop ideas, encourage them to try new things, figure out what works and doesn’t and why. There I will do granular line edits as well as suggest big re-thinks, gut-renovations. At a different kind of publication it might be different but TLR doesn’t have the resources to invest in that sort of development work. The only time I might break this rule would be if there’s a piece I really love but something specific about it jumps off the page at me as being wrong-headed, or crippling to otherwise successful work. In that case, where I feel strongly that a piece is close to the mark but missing it and I can see exactly why, I’ll send an email with editorial notes—cut the ending, switch the scenes around, what have you—and see if the author and I can come to terms.
What is the most common mistake you see writers make when submitting?
Hmm. I can think of a few. First is non-familiarity with our journal. We don’t have a strong house style or aesthetic or genre agenda, so we’re looser than a lot of places in terms of what we might be open to, but we still see an ungodly amount of stuff that anyone who’d ever read us or even spent ten minutes on our website would have known better than to send. Recently there was sort of a run on super-self-aware writing-about-writing, these pieces that try to cover for how reflexive and self-referential they are by simultaneously attacking themselves for their self-referentiality. It’s just hideous—like a boyfriend who confesses to cheating on you then wants you to hold him while he cries about it; don’t you see how much it hurts me to have hurt you? Well, yeah, I can see that, but also, Fuck you, buddy. In the immortal words of Dylan, Now ain’t the time for your tears. I think these guys—and they’re all guys, all of them—are trying some kind of double dog dare to up the ante on the new wave of auto-fiction, which if you’re reading this, let me be the one to tell you is the old wave of auto-fiction now.
That’s something else good to keep in mind: read journals before you submit to them to discern their taste, not to look for trends. By the time you’re reading the piece, it’s years old. The writer, the editor, the journal, have all moved on to the next thing. The last thing any journal wants is to look like itself from two years ago.
Last thing: You don’t need to obsess over your cover letter. I’m not going to read it until after I read your story. If I like something, I want to know where it came from, who I’m dealing with. And there’s never any need to drown me in your prior publication credits. Do mention your last book, if you have one, or a few high points (The New Yorker? kudos! Electric Lit? Love those guys!) but listing that you’ve appeared in 70 places nobody has ever heard of, to try and appear more “established” or whatever, is a waste of both our time. In fact it may actively undermine your efforts to appear in my journal because one thing I love to do at TLR is find new voices. If two pieces of equal quality are in front of me and I’ve got room for only one of them, I’d rather publish the one by the writer whose first or second or third ever story than some guy out there flogging his 40th thing that year. You know that new prize for debut short stories—the PEN/Catapult Robert J. Dau thing? That’s my favorite new prize to come along in a while. As soon as I heard about that I wrote to Minna and said I want TLR to have a horse in that race every single year. I wish writers who were totally unpublished would print VIRGIN big and bold at the top of their cover letter. I would read those pieces first.
What percentage of the stories that you publish are taken from the slush?
Not sure of the percentage but I can tell you a bit how the process works. Every story submitted gets read, and there’s some kind of filtration system by which pieces that show promise make their way up to me. I have purposefully kept the particulars of this system opaque from myself, which has been easy to do because I live on the other side of the country from where the journal is homed, Fairleigh Dickinson University, New Jersey. What I mean is we have great grad students and interns and they make sure the best stuff gets through to me and whatever I like best of that bunch goes up to Minna, who has the final say. We publish 4 issues a year, with around 8–10 stories in each one, less if we take some longer stuff. So figure between 32 and 40 story slots per year, total, and I’ll probably fill around a third of those myself through solicitations. Not great odds, as you can see, but that’s the truth of it.
This year was special because we did an all-fiction issue, “Physics,” that is brand-new right now (an all-poetry issue is soon to follow) so I got to edit that whole issue and there are 25 writers in there. I won’t go through the whole TOC but off the top of my head: “Kripa Goyal” by Bipin Aurora, “Her Replacements” by JoAnna Novak, “Aunts and Uncles” by Christopher Evans, “Snack Country” by John William McConnell—all these were slush. And they weren’t the only ones, but enough I think to make the point. The issue before this one (“Uncle”) had a lot of slush, too: “God of Nothing” by Taylor Lannamann, “Little Ghost Face” by Karen Wunsch, “Horse Girl Fever” by Kevin Maloney, “A Stick and a Stone” by Nathan Alling Long. Nickalus Rupert’s “The Temptation of Saint Ravine” was a slush story that appeared in the “I Live Here” issue last year. Nick’s story stands out because I’m teaching down at Southern Mississippi this year and when I got here, there he was, one of my PhD students. So he’s my friend now and I guess the next time I want something from him I’ll just ask. And I will say again, emphatically as I can, that TLR regards publishing new voices, and publishing writing in translation, as central to its mission. In fact, a lot of what I solicited for “Physics” was from younger writers. Check out “American Mouth” by Anika Jade; “The Library” by Eli Todd; “Boys” and “Doors,” two flash fictions by Benjamin Corbett; and “The Activist” by Alec Niedenthal.
What type of story or pitch would you like to see more of?
We don’t take pitches, just pieces, and I don’t ever think of short fiction (or nonfiction, I guess) in terms of “types” but I will say this: We want to do more nonfiction than we’ve done in the past. We want to publish more work in translation. Our editor-in-chief is an Italian translator and the MFA program that houses us offers a degree in translation, so we are a lot less skittish than some journals can be about handling that kind of work. We have always published international writing—in translation or written in English—and we want to keep doing that, do more of that. We want more work by women and by writers of color, and by women writers of color. I actually think that, if you gave us the full VIDA, we’d come out pretty good on gender parity, and also on diversity of national origin, sexuality, age—and I don’t just mean in terms of the background of the author, but in terms of the content of the stories themselves. Race, I’m not sure where we’d come out, frankly, but I’d guess it varies issue to issue and year on year, which means that however well we’ve done we can surely do better. I am not interested in a kind of mandatory minimums approach to diversity, where you try to do just enough to avoid certain factions getting (justifiably!) angry at you. I am interested in having our pages represent the range of experience and complexity of being in the world as it actually exists right now. So if you’re reading our magazine and there seems to be a gaping hole in the kinds of stories and/or writers who are represented, please know that is a hole we are actively looking to fill, quite possibly with your work.
Photo credit: (c) David Benhaim